Review: Called to Create

Called to create

Called to CreateJordan Raynor. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: A view of creative, entrepreneurial work as a good calling from God, and the challenges and opportunities of pursuing entrepreneurial work for the glory of God.

We celebrate them when they are successful–the Steve Jobs, Elon Musks, and Oprah Winfrey’s of the world. They are risk-taking entrepreneurs whose creativity brings new products to the market, or whose artistic work is of a character of excellence and success that it gains wide notice. The author of this work extends the idea of entrepreneur “to anyone who takes a risk to create something new for the good of others.”  These include tech entrepreneurs, but also small business owners, artists and writers, nonprofit founders, chefs, and many others. The author, himself an entrepreneur, explores whether the pursuit of such work is honoring to God, or somehow “second class” to more “noble” forms of Christian service. Clearly, he believes the former to be true.

The book addresses four “C’s” of Christian entrepreneurship: Calling, Creating, Challenges, and Charge. He integrates biblical principles with the stories of forty men and women entrepreneurs in a variety of fields from J.R.R. Tolkien to the founders of TOMS shoes and In-and Out Burgers. What I appreciated was the combination of rich theological insight (rather than cliche’) and substantive examples.

In the section on “Calling” he begins with God as the first entrepreneur as maker of all things and the source of all creativity. I appreciate that he considers the incarnate Lord as a carpenter who for twenty years revealed God’s creative and entrepreneurial spirit. From this he outlines a theology of work as intrinsically good, and finally discusses how we discern calling as we understand what we are passionate, gifted for, and have the greatest opportunity to love others by doing.

“Creating” begins by looking at why we create–is it to make a name for ourselves as did the tower builders of Babel, or like Bach soli Deo gloria (for the glory of God alone). Then there is the question of what we create, and here the two factors are products that show something of what God is like and products that love others. It could be children’s stories like those written by Lewis, or the beer brewed by the Guinness family, less alcoholic than gin, and safe to drink. Finally, the question is how we create, and the key here is excellence in product and putting people before profit, which the author found exemplified in his study and interviews with Chick-fil-A personnel.

“Challenges” begins with the relentless pressure entrepreneurs face to hustle and the issues of trust and rest, including sabbath, that are essential for staying focused on their callings. A reality of entrepreneurship is failure, yet often it is hushed up rather than transparently acknowledged and learned from, where it becomes a source of hope and boldness. Finally, he addresses the continual need for mental renewal that he believes comes through communing with God, partners, and others (for example, the Inklings).

The last part was perhaps the most unexpected for me. “Charge” begins with the call of entrepreneurs to make disciples through first loving people and then teaching the word. Perhaps the most moving story was that of Alex Clark, a Chick-fil-A manager who hires Jenny, before discovering she is a felon on probation, but sticks with her and develops her professionally to the point where she manages a store, but also comes to faith, and embraces a calling to do what Alex did with others. He talks about the use of profits– given away, reinvested to grow the business, and invested to help others called to create. He concludes with a chapter that focuses around a shared speaking engagement between Peter Thiel (co-founder of PayPal) and N. T. Wright that explores the idea of the new heaven and earth, and thinking about our work passing into the eternity of the New Creation.

In my work, I’ve had the chance to interact with entrepreneurs in business, in the world of ideas, and in the arts. Often, I’ve discovered that they have felt that the church looks a bit askance at them, or only views them for what they give to the church in time or money. This book is an encouragement to these people that their work matters to God and the pleasure they take in entrepreneurship may just be the favor of God upon their lives. This is also a book pastors desperately need to read, as it may stretch their imagination about the ways God might call the people who sit under their teaching Sunday by Sunday. Do we see Peter and Andrew simply as the first disciples, or as hard-working self-employed entrepreneurs? Is Lydia just Paul’s host, or an enterprising businesswoman in purple goods? Do we affirm just the hours people put into the ostensible ministries of the church, or recognize the ways they reflect and bring honor to their Creator in their work every day?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Myth of Equality

the myth of equality

The Myth of Equality, Ken Wytsma. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: A white pastor explores the reality of white privilege from the perspectives of both American history and the gospel of the kingdom and how white Christians might pursue justice.

We all like to believe the best about ourselves.Most of us want to believe we are a society where everyone is equal. Most of us would like to believe racism and racial injustices are a thing of the past. And most of us, if we are white, squirm a bit when we hear the phrase “white privilege.” I can imagine some who are reading this composing arguments as you read for what you want to say in the comments section.

Ken Wytsma is a white pastor who believes Christians need to have honest conversations about these matters if we are to contribute to healing the racial divides within our churches and society. He speaks of a conversation with a young, white landscaper who has worked hard to build his business and didn’t think he’d enjoyed privilege. Wytsma recounts their dialogue:

“I asked him in what part of town he did most of his work.

‘In the suburbs,’ he said,

I then asked where, specifically, he did his work.

‘Mostly in people’s backyards,’ he answered.

I asked him when he did most of his work.

‘Well, during the day, of course,’ he quickly retorted.

I asked if I could pose one more question, and he said yes. So I asked him how he got most of his business.

He responded, ‘I put flyers in people’s doors and sometimes knock at houses where I think there’s a particular opportunity I can offer them.’

Having gathered all this information about his business and how his work functions, I asked, ‘If you were a young man of color in those mostly white suburbs, is it possible you would be received differently by some of the potential clients?’

. . .

He nodded, and I could see from the look on his face that he finally understood white privilege. White privilege doesn’t mean your life isn’t hard. It means that if you are a person of color, simply by virtue of that, your life might be harder.”  (pp. 25-26)

Wytsma’s book is broken into three parts. The first, titled “The Story of Race” explores the history of race in America through several historical lenses. He considers the history of immigration and the emergence of white supremacy. He steps back into European history and explores the roots of racism in Shakespeare, philosophy, colonization, and post-conquest treatment of Native Americans. He explores the history of slavery in the U.S., and the failed post-Civil War effort of Reconstruction succeeded by the rise of Jim Crow, disenfranchisement, political strategies of the Republican party to win the White south, and the war on drugs. The concluding chapter in this section is on the Great Migration to northern and western cities, and how redlining practices shaped these cities long after they were outlawed. He mentions the FHA/HOLC maps from the 1930’s that “graded” neighborhoods for the purpose of granting loans, with “D” areas in red, and deemed uncreditworthy. (Here is the map of my hometown of Youngstown; I grew up in a “C” or yellow area, but it was still part of the “white west side” and indeed, most Blacks lived in the “red” areas of town).

Part two focuses on theology as Wytsma considers “Equality and the Kingdom of God.” He speaks tellingly of all the “off limit” subjects in our “authentic” churches and how they reveal our conflicted loyalties between “empire” and “the kingdom of God.” He explores our truncated gospel, and how we leave out justice, not realizing that “justice,” “righteousness” and “justify” derive from the same words. To be in right relationship or justified with God and to be in right or just relation with neighbor are part of one gospel of the kingdom. He discusses what he calls our “salvation-industrial” complex that reduces salvation to how many have prayed a “sinner’s prayer,” a metric that can translate into enhanced donations for a ministry. This becomes a very individualized experience that fails to reckon with what it means to be incorporated into a new humanity that transcends all human-made divisions and national boundaries.

In Part Three, Wytsma outlines how we begin to address white privilege. He describes how implicit racial bias can shape our thinking, whether in an interview or a police stop.and how this may be overcome. He challenges our Christian conference complex that is often pervaded by white speakers from the platform, and other ways we simply don’t recognize people of other ethnicities and give them a place at the table, or even yield the table (or podium) to them. Finally he speaks of the steps we may take to open ourselves to the other, and even find ourselves in the other–listening and learning, lamenting, confessing, and laying down our privilege to raise up others.

What I appreciate throughout the book is that the point is not shaming or laying guilt but helping us understand and wake up to something to which we may have been oblivious. Wytsma helps us follow his own journey of understanding. Along the way, he helped me see that to attempt to deny or defend privilege is to carry a heavy burden, and one that isolates me from the manifold riches of a diverse community of believers. Recognizing privilege, honestly facing and lamenting the way it has hurt others, and laying it down as a gift to others, to bless others and share that privilege with them is liberating.

We are also facing a major demographic challenge as a nation, in which people of color will be in the numerical majority by 2050. It is one that faces white Christians with a challenge and an opportunity. Will we try to hang onto something of which others are desperately seeking a share, or will we both enrich, and allow ourselves to be enriched by brothers and sisters whose skin color is darker than ours? Instead of fearing what we might lose, might we consider both what we may give and gain?


What Makes a Book a Good “Read”?

GrantWhat makes a book a good “read”? This has been a question I’ve been pondering as I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s Grant. As I write I’m 680 pages into the book and into Grant’s presidency. There are about 300 pages to go, and this is one book I don’t want to end. I contrast this with some 200 page books where i get to page 50 and wonder when it will end.

I’ve come up with several things that I think play into making a book of any length and any type a great read:

First of all is the choice of a subject or plot focus. Grant as a person makes for a fascinating subject. Son and son-in-law of two overbearing fathers. Resigned his position in the Army due to drinking problems, which dogged his heels all his life. A failure in civilian life in the years leading up to the war. Yet he comes alive with the Civil War as a leader who doesn’t worry about what others could do to him, but wants Confederate officers to worry about him. He takes the fight to his enemies. He finds an aide, John Rawlins, who acts as his conscience, keeping him more or less sober. He fights Lee fiercely, wearing him down, and treats him with grace at Appomattox. He sees Blacks as people, and embraces Emancipation and Reconstruction, when so many, even in the North, resist it. He is a man of integrity, yet can be strangely blind to others of lesser character. And on it goes.

A good writer finds or creates interest in her plot or subject. In one sense, almost anything can be interesting if the writer finds what is interesting in it. What a good writer seems to do is tease out the richness, the fascination, the goodness, and flaws of his character or characters. This is far more than a bare narrative of Grant’s life–one event after another. It is an exploration of what it was to be Grant. Chernow’s obviously thought about the strength’s and flat sides of Grant–how what worked on the battlefield and didn’t in political office. He considers the people around Grant, and their influence without submerging the influence of Grant himself.

Then there is the question of pace. How can someone write a thousand page book without being tedious? It comes down to keeping things moving. Chernow always seems to move on before I start wishing he would. Sometimes this is not the case with books that are considered “great.” Readers often complain they are hard to read, even if they explore fundamental matters of the human condition. I’m not sure what to say about this except that perhaps there are times when what is being said is of such importance that we hang in there, even if we wish it had been written with greater facility.

Finally, I think it comes down finally to good sentences. As a reader, what one notices is that you don’t bog down in the text but just move down the page. Meaning comes through clearly, and the sentences aren’t too complex. You don’t keep going back asking, what did I just read?

A good read is a pleasure. We often spend far more on a good meal or performance than we do on a good book that affords hours of pleasure and enriches our lives. I’m coming more and more to believe it is money well spent, a way to say “thank you” to authors, publishers, and booksellers who bring this goodness into our lives.


Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Dr. James B. Birch

James B Birch

Photo from The Vindicator, December 25, 1978, accessed from Google Newspaper Archives

A few weeks ago, I wrote about times when we were sick as children. Among the Facebook comments I received, several mentioned doctors who made house calls when they were sick and several mentioned the doctor who was my pediatrician, Dr. James B. Birch. When I was writing the post, I was trying to remember if he made house calls. When some others mentioned him coming to the house with his black physician’s bag, it all came back–laying on the living room sofa while he examined me, giving me a shot or some medicine from his bag and writing out a prescription for more. How different medical care was just 50 years ago!

My other memories of Dr. Birch had to do with visits to his office, located on the North side at the corner of Wick and Illinois. It wasn’t one of these sterile medical suites you visit today. It was a house. I remember a waiting area with these wood toys, children’s size chairs, a receptionist, and a dog. His exam room was in the back. I remember a table you would climb up on, some diagrams of the human body on the walls, and this gentle man who treated you like the most important person in the world. I never feared going to the doctor’s office, and there was even a time early in my life when I wanted to be a doctor. I think Dr. Birch had a good deal to do with that.

I wondered what became of him, and what more I could learn about his background. It was hard to find much but I did locate a Vindicator article from December 25, 1978 on Google’s newspaper archives, on his retirement when he was nearly 77 years old and had practiced medicine for 50 years. From it I learned that he was born in 1902 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. He moved to Springfield, Ohio, where his father was a college philosophy professor at Wittenberg College. He graduated from Wittenberg and studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He had a sister living in Warren and interned at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. This was followed by residencies in pediatrics in Philadelphia and at the University of Cincinnati before returning to Youngstown for good.

His first office was on Lincoln Avenue and later he was in the old Butler house on Wick Avenue before moving to the Wick and Illinois house that would serve as his office for the last thirty years of his career. The article mentions the wood toys, which came from the Swartz Toy Shop in New York City, and were still in use as he ended his practice. There was a coat rack made by a customer with wooden dogs at the base, mobiles, a facsimile of Snow White and pictures of ducks. At his retirement, he had a cockapoo. All I remember was the toys and the dogs.

The article speaks of the advances in medicine during his years of practice. In the early years, he saw many polio cases. I would have received my first polio vaccination from him. Similarly, he saw vaccines introduced for all the other childhood diseases except chicken pox (for which there is now a vaccine as well). Unfortunately, that was after my time–I had measles, mumps, rubella, and chicken pox.

He sounds like he was progressive in many ways, favoring breast feeding even when it wasn’t fashionable, deploring junk food and sugary drinks, and opposing some of the rigid schedules for mothers and young children that were advocated at one time. He sounds like a paragon of common sense! He was on the Child Guidance Clinic board when it hired its first child psychologist, and the boards of the Speech and Hearing Center and the Crippled Children’s Center, later the Easter Seal Center.

He apparently stayed in the Youngstown area after retirement and passed away on November 1, 1988. He is buried in Tod Homestead Cemetery. Many of us, and probably in some cases our children, were patients of Dr. Birch, and some of us probably owe him our lives. His gentle manner and his child friendly office in a home removed the fear of going to the doctor. Until a few weeks ago I hadn’t thought of him in years. He was also a part of growing up in Youngstown for many of us and represents an era of medical practice that is past, but worth remembering.

The Billy Graham Century

Duisburg, Veranstaltung mit Billy Graham

Billy Graham in Duisburg, Germany, 1954.  Bundesarchiv, Bild 194-0798-29/Lachmann, Hans/CC-BY_SA 3.0

Publishers Weekly story called to my attention that this is Billy Graham’s centennial year. If his health holds, he will turn 100 on November 7, 2018. The article noted that there are new or updated books that will be released this year by scholars William Martin and Grant Wacker and more popular books by his grandson William and former Graham associate Lon Allison. Edit Blumhofer is working on a book on Graham’s use of gospel music at his crusades, and Ann Blue Wills will publish a work on the life of Ruth Bell Graham titled An Odd Cross to Bear. Martin’s book apparently will also explore the impact of Graham’s son Franklin on his legacy.

At a time when many are questioning whether evangelicalism has a future, or whether to identify as an evangelical, it is oddly fitting and paradoxical that this attention is being given to the figure who as much as anyone defined American evangelicalism. His educational journey traced his journey from fundamentalism to the beginnings of evangelicalism, leaving Bob Jones University after a year because of its legalism to attend Florida Bible Institute and then finishing his education at Wheaton College. He started out as an evangelist with high school ministry Youth for Christ and launched his first “crusade” in Los Angeles, gaining national attention due to William Randolph Hearst’s decision to “puff Graham.”

His crusades reached across denominational lines, drawing criticism from fundamentalists. He pioneered use of media with his Hour of Decision radio broadcasts (to which I listened growing up) and with his television broadcasts of crusades. He helped found Christianity Today, the flagship publication of evangelicalism. He de-segregated seating at his crusades and included black leadership in his crusades as early as 1957. Joining with British preacher John R. W. Stott, they worked together to host the 1974 International Conference on World Evangelization in Lausanne, Switzerland, propelling global efforts from every nation to every nation to advance the Christian message, making evangelicalism a global movement.

For better or worse, his close relationship with American presidents also established a pattern of engagement between evangelicals and politicians. It was clear in later years that he felt betrayed by Richard Nixon’s behavior in Watergate, including his profanity. They reconciled in later years. He spent extended times in Lyndon Johnson’s White House and prayed with every president from Truman to Obama. This was remarkable in a way after the rise of the Religious Right. It will be interesting to see the judgment of history on his involvement with Presidents.

Graham’s ministry had a shaping influence on my own life. His Hour of Decision broadcasts that we listened to every Sunday night during my childhood made it clear that there was a decision to be made about Christ, and that this was the most consequential decision in one’s life. While I did not “go forward” at one of his crusades, having made my “decision” at a Vacation Bible School at age 10, I saw him speak on seven occasions. The first was at the 1970 crusade in Cleveland at the old Cleveland Stadium, with a busload of kids from our church. On five occasions I heard him speak at InterVarsity’s Urbana Missions Conventions in 1976, 1979, 1981, 1984, and 1987. (Altogether, he spoke here on nine occasions. Here is a short video clip from his 1961 message). The last time I heard him speak was at the old Cooper Stadium in Columbus in 1993. I still have a poster from that in my office. When his associate evangelist Leighton Ford spoke in Youngstown, in the 1970’s, I was a counselor and the training they offered helped me in leading others to faith.

He continued to minister to my family even in retirement. My mother passed in 2010. My father was struggling with the loss and how to make sense of what was left of his life. In 2011, Graham published Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well. My dad always had deeply respected Graham and he read the book over and over again and spoke of how much it helped him. My dad finished his own race in 2012 and Graham’s book helped him in his last couple years to finish well.

It remains to be seen the course the movement he nurtured will take in coming years. Historians and religious scholars will no doubt have differing opinions on his personal influence on that movement, and I suspect not all will be favorable. It’s the lot of the best of us to both hit our limits and prove our fallibility. Perhaps all any of us can do is to be found faithful in our callings. By this standard, Graham is finishing out his century well. Not too long ago, commenting on his Parkinson’s disease, he said,

“Someone asked me recently if I didn’t think God was unfair, allowing me to have Parkinson’s and other medical problems when I have tried to serve him faithfully. I replied that I did not see it that way at all. Suffering is part of the human condition, and it comes to us all. The key is how we react to it, either turning away from God in anger and bitterness or growing closer to him in trust and confidence.” (Source: 40 Courageous Quotes From Billy Graham)

Personally, while recognizing aspects of his life that might be criticized, at the end of the day, I find myself saying, “thanks be to God for Billy Graham.” I suspect for him, though, the only praise that matters is the Master’s “well done, good and faithful servant.”




Should Reviewers Endorse Books?


The Source of the term “blurb”. Public Domain-US via Wikimedia

I had never thought about this question until recently when asked by an aspiring author whose work I had agreed to review whether I would do a book endorsement (or blurb) instead. I had to think about that one. In the end, I decided not to do this. Here’s my thought process (along with some further reflections).

For one thing, an endorsement serves to give credibility to a book. People look at the back cover or the inside of the book to see if people they know and respect think this book worth buying. Honestly, part of my reason for saying “no” is that I am not a household name, despite having a decent following, Most people would just say “Bob who?”

Beyond this, book endorsements are always positive, and they imply that one approves the ideas of the author, and particularly the book in question. I can fully understand why that is important in promoting a book. An endorsement by a person known to the prospective reader is an encouragement to at least take a look, and think about buying this book.

And that brought me to my other reason for saying “no.” I have developed this blog around reviewing, and reviewing is different. It is not one to three sentences about what is so good about a book. It is a longer form, in which I try to summarize a book in a way that helps my readers decide whether or not to buy the book. If I’ve done my job well, someone who buys a book I review won’t think I misled them, even if they have a different “take” on the book. While I generally try to be gracious in my reviews because I have some sense of what goes into writing a book, I will not always agree with the book’s point of view or think that it was particularly well-written. Sometimes I will note issues it fails to address. Reviewing gives me the freedom to make negative as well as positive comments about a book.

Sometimes, an author or book publisher or publicist will excerpt a quote from a review I’ve written (often on Twitter) that looks like an endorsement. I have no problem with this as long as there is proper attribution and a link to my full review (note the copyright paragraph on this blog). For anyone who cares, they are able to consult the full review…and it provides traffic to my blog as well!

This points to the place of both reviewers and endorsers in the book industry. Both are important in “getting the word out” about a book and helping people decide whether to buy it. We both have in common an appreciation for the work that goes into a book, we both think reading good books is a valuable endeavor, and we both recognize that publishers, authors, and booksellers depend, at least in part, on our efforts in securing sales of a book. Also, in most cases for both of us, this is purely a labor of love, unless we work for a review publication like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Reviews. Otherwise, paid reviews or endorsements raise all kinds of ethical questions (especially online reviews at bookseller sites).

But the two roles are different. While some do both, in truth I’m uneasy about endorsements if I am to maintain my independence as a reviewer. At very least, I could not review the same or another work of an author for whom I had written an endorsement. [Similarly, I’ve done anonymous reader reviews of a couple of manuscripts that were later published. I did not write reviews on these books.] Maybe deep down, I worry that if I endorse books, people will think any positive reviews I write to simply be endorsements of the book.

So, for now, I won’t be appearing in any book blurbs…not that people are beating a path to my door! I’d be curious how others have thought of this.

Postscript: I do think the endorsement thing can be overdone. I wrote a while back about a book I reviewed with six pages of endorsements. The more endorsements, the more suspicious I get about the book, but that just may be me.


Review: Resurrecting Religion

resurrecting religion

Resurrecting ReligionGreg Paul. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2018.

Summary: In an era when religion has a bad name, the author proposes that what we need is not “no religion” but the kind of religion that James writes about, and that his church is trying to live out.

John Lennon’s “Imagine” has become kind of an anthem for our age, particularly with it’s suggest that we imagine a world with no religion. The author of this book suggests there is good reason for this, that there are many examples of bad religion out there that might disillusion some from the whole “religion project.” There is religion that is insensitive to the poor, that is racist, that is hypocritical, or simply irrelevant.

Greg Paul would contend that the answer to bad religion is not “no religion” but the kind of religion that James, the brother of Jesus wrote about:

“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world”  (James 1:27).

In this book, he takes us through the book of James, weaving in narrative of Sanctuary Toronto, a church that takes seriously ministering to the poor, the homeless, all those society tends to write off, forming a community with these people. Their mission to the poor isn’t a once a year volunteer stint at a soup kitchen, but regular communal meals served by all the community to all the community–rich and poor together.

All this comes from taking scripture seriously, and particularly the challenges in James to care for the poor, and that faith without deeds is dead. He argues that the pollution about which James is concerned is a church that shows partiality to the rich rather than seeking to bless the people Jesus blesses in the beatitudes. He writes about Matt, whose abilities to form attachments and exercise judgment was impaired from birth by fetal alcohol syndrome. Loved despite all his faults and struggles with addiction, he ended up taking his life. Paul writes of Matt:

“In all of my reading of commentary on the Beatitudes, I’ve never found anyone who went so far as to say this straight out, so I will: What Jesus taught that day means that Matt, regardless of what he believed about doctrinal concepts such as ‘the person and work of Christ,’ is a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. He was, in fact, thus blessed from the moment of his birth–you could say, in his case, that because he was born screwed, he was also born into the Kingdom and carried the passport all his life, even if he didn’t realize it” (p. 112).

This makes sense of a community that loves the most unlikely–they believe these are the blessed of the kingdom in the beatitudes. Perhaps most moving is his story of Al and Mike. Al was a bicycle courier, a Mixed Nations person, and pretty rough around the edges. Mike was a successful businessman, who one day was in an accident that ended Al’s life. The most unlikely followed. Mike became a part of the community, loved not because he was rich and accepted despite killing one of their beloved members.

Following James’ teaching, this is a community that is learning to listen more than speaking, to find wisdom in submission to God. They are seeking to live out, as the book’s final chapter describes, a new reformation they desperately believe is needed throughout the church. He believes such a community actually follows Jesus into the places he would go, preaches a whole integrated gospel, focuses on practical justice, directs its energies outward, and committed to being a real community and not a social club.

This is not a comfortable book. But neither is James letter. Both sound like they deny, at points, the life of faith, for an emphasis on works. But in our era of designer, big box suburban churches, it seems to me a greater venture of faith to set out to follow Jesus as this community does. It takes them into human pain for which there are no easy answers even while they proclaim and live great grace.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Good Retirement Guide 2018

the good retirement guide 2018

The Good Retirement Guide 2018, Allan Esler Smith, ed. London: Kogan Page, 2018.

Summary: A wide-ranging guide exploring everything from financial planning to housing to health to business and personal pursuits for residents of the UK approaching retirement.

Reading and reviewing this guide is the result of a well-intentioned mistake. Retirement is an approaching reality in my own life, and when I saw this available for review on Netgalley, I requested it, failing to read the second paragraph of the book description noting that it “offers clear and concise suggestions on a broad range of subjects for UK retirees.”

Now there may be some of you who follow this blog for whom this is just what you need. You live in the UK, and much of this will already make sense. You will find the first four chapters on financial planning, pensions and investment instruments, taxes, and a number of the websites and resources in all of the chapter quite useful. Mainly for me, it made me aware that there are parallel issues of planning, retirement savings, investment advisors, and dealing with tax issues. It was also apparent that scammers are not limited to this side of the Atlantic, and that they use many of the same ploys. The most helpful advice is that if it sounds too good to be true, it likely is, and that if it doesn’t “smell” right, it probably isn’t. Oh, and don’t be careless about taxes because it sounds like enforcement is more rigorous and there are steep fines and penalties!

Chapters 5-11 covered issues that had broader general applicability, although resources and public and private agencies recommended are UK-based, as one would expect.  There were helpful tips on determining whether to age in place or downsize and the various options, The chapter on healthcare included practical discussions of caring for eyes, feet, hearing, teeth, and health issues like insomnia and depression as well as country specific information about health insurance and the National Health Service. There were a number of encouraging ideas about starting businesses, working for other and volunteering, as well as leisure activities.

Having already passed this threshold personally, it had not occurred to me that for many retirees, there are elderly parents and relatives still to be cared for, as well as children or even grandchildren. Finally, the book has important advice about wills, powers of attorney, and estate and funeral planning that none of us like to think about but are vital. The big takeaway here is, have a will and make sure it is up to date.

Each chapter and subsection has “top tips” and generous lists of websites and agencies that offer advice, much of it free. Where provisions are different in Wales and Scotland, this is also noted. All told, this appears to be an accessible and up to date guide for anyone living in the UK. For the rest of us, or at least for me, it suggests the kind of guide I want to look for tailored to the American scene.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Delivered From the Elements of the World

delivered from the elements of the world

Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter J. Leithart. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016.

Summary: An exploration of why Christians claim the death and resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event in human history, because it is the “delivering verdict” of God against human systems to control sinful human flesh, hence an act with socio-political significance for all peoples.

Anselm posed the question, “Cur Deus Homo?” or “why the God Man?” Peter J. Leithart thinks the more significant question that must be asked is, “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century…be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?”

Leithart’s big question leads to a sweeping exploration of pagan and secular culture, Levitical foundations, and Pauline teaching. This is not a book for the faint of heart or one narrowly focused on atonement theories, but rather one that attempts to explain how our understanding of the atonement makes sense of everything and addresses not only the individual but our social and political structures.

Leithart begins with exploring what he calls the “physics of the old creation.” We are creatures of flesh, originally good but bent in the fall. Every society subsequently creates “elemental” or stoicheic systems (cf. Galatians 4:1-10) recognizing the pollution of human flesh and creating systems of “do not taste, do not touch” rules that lead to striving for purity. Leithart does an imaginative tour by a Jew of various ancient civilizations describing how these work, whether focused around the fear of death, around phallic displays and fertility, or around violence, honor, and vengeance. These resulted in classes, political structures, and injustices.

God chose Israel for something different. Beginning with Abraham, the cutting of circumcision was an anti-flesh campaign that expanded with Torah and served as a teacher or pedagogue of how to approach God. Yet Torah was co-opted in using purity rules to reinforce ideas of racial superiority over Gentiles and divisions between elite and “sinner” Jews. It became yet another stoicheic system.

Leithart understands that it is the full life of Jesus enacting all that Torah intended, the unjust death in the flesh in which judgment is passed upon human flesh in Christ (Leithart here argues for a carefully defined version of penal substitution), and the bodily resurrection of Jesus by the Father in the Spirit, that together constitute atonement and justification. Leithart elaborates justification as God’s “delivering verdict” or “deliverdict” liberating not only from sin and the flesh, but the elemental, stoicheic principles of the world, whether those of other religious systems, Torah, or what Leithart sees as the post-stoicheic systems of secularism which are a kind of relapse from the Christian era’s understanding of a Spirit indwelt life. Those united with Christ by faith enter a new epoch, a new humanity breaking down the sociopolitical divisions of the old order, and live according to a new animating principle.

I’ve offered here only a bare bones summary of a breathtakingly rich argument. I believe he makes several important contributions to our understanding of the work of Christ. One is his discussion of stoicheic elements as a social theory elaborating the ways various societies attempt to deal with the flesh, and the sociopolitical consequences of these systems. While carefully arguing for penal substitution, a doctrine that has fallen out of favor, he contends for a broader understanding of atonement and justification that encompasses the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and centers justification in the objective “delivering verdict” of these events rather than our subjective experience. Along with N.T. Wright, he argues that we are justified by the faith of Jesus, in whom we trust, but he also draws out further what this new status means in terms of a new Spirit-empowered life in the flesh and a new social order contrary to stoicheic systems that has radical implications for Christian mission that crosses social barriers and breaks them down. His analysis of modernity in “Galatian Church, Galatian Age” serves as a rich complement to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Leithart’s book covers familiar territory but forces you out of familiar patterns of thinking. I’m still weighing how well “stoicheic systems” can serve as a kind of “social theory of everything.” I’m challenged by how often we separate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and how Leithart brings these together as a seamless whole. The idea of a “delivering verdict,” that performs what it declares and powerfully transfers us into a Spirit empowered community speaks of the power of the gospel to effect what it promises. This book stays on my shelves, worthy of further reflection and re-reading.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Michael Kusalaba Library


Michael Kusalaba Library, Photo courtesy Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County. Used with permission.

Those of you who have followed this blog know that I grew up on Youngstown’s West side, and that I am a bookish sort of person. Some of this was due to a mom who was a reader and to inspiring teachers. A good part of this was also due to the hours I spent at the West Side Library as a kid. I wrote recently that when I think of going to a happy place in my mind, the most likely place I would go is a library.

One of the rites of passage in my life was getting my own library card. When I was growing up, the card was printed on cardboard, with your name typed on it by the librarian after completing a handwritten application. I felt a little more grown up when I received that card! It had to be renewed periodically, if you had no overdue books. Having overdue books felt like a sin. I wonder if my Catholic friends ever brought that up at confession!

It was a wonder, though, to walk up Mahoning Avenue the half mile or so from my home on N.Portland and go to my favorite sections, which tended to be sports, science and science fiction, and military history. It was the era of the space program and many of us were fascinated by rockets and space. I’d pick out as many books as you were allowed to check out (I think the number was six) and walk up to the check out desk, present my card, and the librarian would use this photo device and scan my library card and the book’s card, stamp the due date in the book, and I had an armload of books to read!

Later on, we learned how to use card catalogues, and how the Dewey Decimal system worked, and other reference resources so we could find information for reports and papers we needed to write for school. It was another rite of passage when you were allowed to use the “adult” part of the library.

So much for library memories. On trips back to Youngstown, we’d drive past the West Side Library, and apart from new signs, it looked the same from the outside. That is no longer the case. The old West Side Library served its last patrons on April 30, 2016 and was torn down to make way for a sparkling new, larger library on the same site.

A West side neighbor, Michael Kusalaba, and his family helped make that possible. Kusalaba grew up nearby on N. Maryland Avenue (I never knew him) and like me spent many hours at the library growing up, and throughout his life. He had a successful career with Ohio Edison and served as a trustee with the CASTLO Community Improvement Corporation. Before he passed in 2009, he established The Michael Kusalaba Fund with the Youngstown Foundation. On October 9, 2015, the Youngstown Foundation announced its largest gift to date, a $1.68 million gift for the construction of a new West Side library from The Michael Kusalaba Fund. Fittingly, it was decided that the new library would bear his name. The total project was budgeted at $3.775 million, the remainder coming from funding set aside for this purpose. The library operates debt-free.

The new library will open next week on February 14, a Valentine’s Day gift to the West side, and all of Youngstown. A formal dedication will follow on February 24. The new library is larger, at 11,514 square feet. It includes children’s, teen and adult areas, a casual Community Living Room area,  public meeting room, multimedia collections, a Technology Hub, with public access computers and other digital technology. There are self check-out and patron assistance kiosks. It also sounds like there will be an outdoor reading area and a courtyard for public events. A recent gift from the Slanina family sponsored the Community Foyer. Sponsorships of other areas of the library are still available.

The library will be open 10 am to 8 pm Monday through Thursday and 10 am to 6 pm on Friday and Saturday. It will also serve as the base for the library’s “Pop Up” mobile outreach throughout the county.

Michael Kusalaba was a leader in community development and a lover of the library. This facility, which bears his name, will hopefully inspire more new development on the West side. It will also be a place where a new generation of West side children might discover the joys of reading and discovery, and residents of all ages can gather for community events and pursue lifelong learning. I can’t wait to see it myself.